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State Law Jeopardizes Adult Classes : Oxnard: The high school district says a 5% cap on overhead charges makes the program a financial liability.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Oxnard Union High School District may scrap its adult education program--which serves 17,000 students--because of a new state law that would make the program a financial liability, district officials said Thursday.

The district’s threat came after recent legislation put a 5% cap on the amount of money districts are allowed to charge their adult education programs for overhead, drastically cutting district revenue.

This school year, the Oxnard adult education program, which receives operating funds of $4.45 million from the federal and state governments, paid the district $870,000, or about 20% of its budget, for such services as utilities and maintenance. Under the new law, the district would get only 5%, or $223,000, leaving a shortfall of nearly $650,000.

“If you can’t charge for electricity, you’re going to have to turn off the lights,” said Robert Brown, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

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Lobbyists for adult education programs had pushed for the legislation to stop what they considered abuses by some districts, which were charging as much as 55% for overhead, school district officials said. But the 5% cap, Brown said, “is overkill.”

The state Legislature apparently agrees. Since the law was enacted last September, legislators have introduced several amendments to soften its impact. The latest amendment under consideration narrows the number of items that have to be included in the 5% cap. For instance, maintenance would be excluded.

But Brown isn’t optimistic. “Our consultant in Sacramento says the amendment won’t solve the problem,” he said.

The district’s consultant, School Services of California, said any changes in the law won’t go far enough. “An amendment may take off bits and pieces of the law,” said Norm Miller, vice president of the company, “but there’s not a real good chance that people making the changes really know there’s a problem.”

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Adult education students at Oxnard High School were stunned Thursday by the program’s possible elimination.

“They’re going to hurt us,” said Miguel Caballero, 33, who takes English as a Second Language. “This is the only way we can afford to study English.”

Jaime Verduzzo, 36, is also worried. “It’s going to affect me,” he said. “I’m learning English to get a better opportunity on the job.”

English teacher Jennie Flores was also upset.

“I don’t know what the students are going to do,” she said. “They have to learn English.”

At other Ventura County school districts, officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the law’s effect. And some officials said the Oxnard district may be overreacting.

“Oxnard has reacted very quickly,” said Ron Halt, director of adult education for the Ventura Unified School District. “We are taking time to study the new law very carefully, but we also feel confident that the additional legislation will adjust the problem.”

Ventura, which has 8,500 students enrolled in adult education, charges the program $753,000, or about 14% of the program’s $5.5-million budget, for overhead, said Assistant Supt. Joe Richards.

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If the law doesn’t change, the district would be faced with a shortfall of about $500,000, “but it’s premature to talk about closing down the program,” Richards said.

If the amendment passes, “the law will not be a problem for us,” said Sondra Jones, director of adult education for the Simi Valley Unified School District, which has 14,000 adult education students. The program costs $6 million annually to operate. Jones was unable to say how much the district charges for overhead.

David Woodruff, principal of the Conejo Valley Unified School District’s adult school, isn’t worried about the 5% cap, even though the district charges the program 23% of its $2.1-million cost for overhead.

“We’re waiting to see what the bottom line is, but we’re not panicking,” he said. “Our district is going to have to adjust. We work well with each other. Our attitude is, ‘We can do it.’ ”

Although state law prohibits districts from charging a fee for basic adult education courses, Woodruff said school districts could make up the shortfall by using “creative (accounting) ways within the rules, although they can’t be as significant as before.”

With the new law, adult education programs will not have to pay nearly as much money to the districts, providing them with a windfall, Woodruff said. But the extra money can’t be funneled to the districts because a state law prohibits adult education funds to be used for general kindergarten through 12th-grade education, and vice versa.

Woodruff, however, said the Conejo adult program needs all the money it can get. “We’ve been cutting our budget and we’re facing a deficit,” he said.

Although Oxnard district officials didn’t include adult education in their 1993-94 preliminary budget, they hope the situation can be resolved.

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“I can’t stress enough that we want to keep the program,” Oxnard Assistant Supt. Gary Davis said.

Others agree. Cutting the program “would be devastating,” said Oxnard trustee Nancy Koch. “People in this day and age have to be lifelong learners. This is the place people go to get inexpensive or free education.”


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